In March, President Barack Obama announced a new “stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy” for Afghanistan, of which a critical component was the immediate deployment of an additional 17,000 soldiers and Marines to support expanded combat operations against a resurgent Taliban. The step would bring total American forces to approximately 55,000 by summer 2009. While such escalation can spur uneasy memories of Vietnam, the difference has been the readiness on the part of the American political and military leadership to be adaptive in the face of irregular warfare. The president and his generals are not clinging to conventional methods and are prepared – almost eager – to employ the military’s new battle-tested counterinsurgency doctrine, which has been responsible for a large measure of the recent success in Iraq. Where the USSR failed to pacify with 115,000 troops and a readiness to employ the “Roman method” of unrestrained violence, American leadership is confident it will succeed. Doing so would close out this turbulent chapter in American military history, restore American military credibility around the world, and exhibit the ability to overcome security challenges that have bedeviled the country since the end of the Cold War. More importantly, the outcome in Afghanistan could resolve a fierce debate underway within the national security community over the merit of focusing on irregular warfare. The “American method” of counterinsurgency (nation building paired with insurgent destroying) is ascendant but many informed warfighters and observers have justified misgivings about its universality. With the impoverished and war-ravaged country generations away from genuine statehood and more pressing security challenges on the horizon, the United States should consider the “Spartan method” in Afghanistan while continuing to examine the balance between counterinsurgency and conventional doctrine.
A Debate Between Crusaders and Conservatives
As ably recounted by Andrew Bacevich in his Atlantic Monthly article, “The Petraeus Doctrine,” military officers are energetically debating the consequence of the shift in emphasis from conventional warfighting to stability operations and counterinsurgency tactics. Officers in favor of the shift are dubbed “crusaders;” their opponents, the “conservatives.”
A prominent voice for the crusaders is retired US Army LT COL John Nagl, a key contributor to the landmark joint Army Field Manual 3-24 / Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 33.3.5: “Counterinsurgency”. Nagl’s conservative counterpart is US Army LT COL Gian Gentile.
Winning The War We're In, Winning All Wars...
The debate most recently manifested with the publication of contrasting articles in the pages of Joint Forces Quarterly (1st Quarter, 2009).
In his article, Nagl acknowledged the importance of preparing for future conflicts but not at the expense of winning current ones. In this regard, Nagl recounted prior arguments about the inflexibility of Army doctrine and identifies an imbalance arising because the “Army... remains rooted in an organizational culture that continues to prioritize the requirements” of a hypothetical war over those of one actually being fought.
Gentile reiterated his original disagreement with counterinsurgency doctrine. It removes the essence of war – fighting and violence – which are essential to success in a counterinsurgency operation. Gentile additionally argued the enthusiasm to introduce counterinsurgency doctrine has precluded thoughtful debate, ironically underscoring the very same inflexibility Nagl has decried. Gentile similarly identifies an imbalance but in reverse – “[counterinsurgency] has morphed into a Weltanschauung of sorts, dictating how the Army should perceive and respond” to security problems around the world.
Both employ the historical record to bolster their arguments, but Gentile underscores the debate’s limitations by citing current events – namely the disastrous Israeli performance in Lebanon during the summer of 2006.
Lebanon as Red Flag
As a formidable conventional military power similarly beset by enemies well-practiced in asymmetric warfare, it was inevitable Israel would serve as a useful reference point for American military planners. Consequently, Israel’s poor showing in the 2006 Lebanon War has figured very prominently in this debate. As has been well reported (CRS, CSIS, CFR), the Israeli army suffered a significant battlefield at the hands of the terrorist group Hezbollah, which stunned many observers by employing conventional tactics featuring small infantry squads armed with machine guns, mortars, and antitank missiles.
In his article, Gentile referenced work by Israeli scholar Avi Kober and Army historian Matt Matthews, which showed the Israeli army’s conventional fighting skills had atrophied due to many years of doing almost nothing but counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories. Accordingly, Gentile warned, “History shows that when states focus their armies on doing nothing but counterinsurgency and world constabulary missions to the exclusion of preparing for conventional warfare, strategic failure can result.”1
Interestingly though, the 2006 Lebanon War has emerged as a touchstone for both crusaders and conservatives.
Counterinsurgency doctrine proponents have pointed to Hezbollah’s unexpected success against the vaunted Israeli conventional military machine as proof of the need to continuing developing counterinsurgency capabilities. Conversely, conventional warfare advocates claim Hezbollah’s adoption of conventional tactics demonstrates the continued importance of preparing for traditional force-on-force combat operations.
An influential Army Strategic Studies study, The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy, cautioned against such interpretations. According to the report, the 2006 Lebanon War indicates future defense planning is “more complex than the current debate often implies.” Moreover,
The analysis of Lebanon above thus does not presuppose appropriate U.S. policy for Iraq or Afghanistan. What an analysis of Lebanon can do, however, is to show the limits of some prominent analyses of future warfare and to highlight the true dilemmas associated with defense policy decision-making.
It may even be the right policy to make a radical shift toward counterguerrilla proficiency if this is the only way to avoid defeat in such wars. Or it may not: an analysis of Lebanon per se cannot establish how much counterguerrilla capability is enough. [Emphasis added]
Unfortunately, as Gentile lamented on behalf of conservatives, “the choice for American foreign policy has already been made for the country: American military intervention in unstable portions of the world.” More worrisome, Gentile contended the military has become increasingly inflexible as to how instability is countered – “When problems of insurgencies and other sources of instability present themselves to American military planners, the only option seemingly available is large numbers of American combat boots on the ground protecting the people from the insurgents.”
A Debate At An Impasse
For Gentile, another key shortcoming of counterinsurgency doctrine is the automatic identification of the population as the center of gravity in any conflict. Gentile asked “why must this always be the case?” To his credit, Gentile disputed counterinsurgency doctrine’s focus on populations by asserting, “sometimes the best approach to dealing with a problem of insurgency is not necessarily a focus on the people per se, but on the insurgent enemy.” However, Gentile did not develop the assertion further, missing an opportunity to examine how the enemy could be reintroduced as a focal point for counterinsurgency doctrine and help prod the debate along.
The key drawback of the debate is the inability to explore options beyond the false “either/or dichotomy”2 of counterinsurgency versus conventional warfare. Counterinsurgency proponents want the American military to continue honing its ability to safeguard the population so that the insurgency will be diminished. Conventional advocates want American warfighters to retain the impulse to destroy the enemy.
The advantage of counterinsurgency has been demonstrated in Baghdad and Iraq, but at the price of an escalated commitment and reduced military readiness for conventional combat. Conventional warfare would minimize the overall commitment and re-focus attention on the original objective – destroying Al Qaeda – but the Karzai regime and population would be abandoned to the Taliban.
So, split the difference.
Post-Modern Conflict, Pre-Modern Approach
In ancient Greece, the extremes of civilization were memorably represented by the liberty of Athens and the tyranny of Sparta. The latter was the infamously authoritarian warrior society that thrived not on trade and commerce, but on the slave labor of its “helot” population. To maintain the veneer of civilization though, the Spartan leadership would not sanction wanton oppression of the helots. Instead, Sparta established a tradition known as the crypteia, whereby the leadership would periodically declare pro forma war on the helots. Thus, under the guise of formal war, Spartans were permitted to kill a helot without blood guilt and preempt any attempts at rebellion. At the same time, crypteia allowed the Spartans to perfect their already fearsome fighting skills.
While grotesque in retrospect (and acknowledged as a provocative proposition), the crypteia hints at an alternative approach for the American military in Afghanistan.
Again, the experience of Israel is instructive.
After Hamas obtained sole control over Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded by closing off all access save supplies to avert a humanitarian crisis. Over the next year, Hamas continued launching mortars and rockets against Israel, which responded with armed reprisals. Shortly after the expiration of a six month ceasefire, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27, 2008 as a punitive campaign against Hamas. The operation began with an intense aerial bombardment and then culminated in a 15-day ground invasion ending January 18, 2009.
While the brief campaign met with near universal international condemnation and underscored divisions within the Israeli leadership, the operation illustrated the utility of an updated crypteia, a “Spartan method”, which purposely targets a sub-state actor like Hamas with a conventional campaign.
According to a draft CSIS review authored by respected defense analyst Anthony Cordesman, the Israeli military began to restructure its command system, training, and readiness almost immediately after the end of the 2006 Lebanon War. In contrast to the low-level police type actions undertaken against the Palestinians in 2000-2005, the Israeli military had resumed large-scale, realistic ground force training, exercises and command at the divisional level, and organized for the full spectrum of combat – conventional and asymmetric. In the case of Gaza, Israel used the six month ceasefire period to plan Operation Cast Lead. Furthermore, the Israeli military did not have grandiose aims, such as ejecting Hamas; instead, Israeli pursued a limited objective, namely degrading Hamas capabilities. Overall, the plan was flexible, modular, and designed to avoid a prolonged engagement or high casualties.
Suppose the United States moved similarly by withdrawing to pacified northern Afghanistan and yielding the volatile southern provinces (red areas, Figure 1) to the Taliban.
Figure 1, Source: Wikipedia
In the north, the American military and allies would continue counterinsurgency operations to secure the population and bolster the Karzai regime. From this smaller consolidated position, the US could defend against Taliban encroachment and then prepare for and periodically launch more comprehensive conventional assaults on the Taliban in the south at the time of their own choosing. With this breathing space, the American military could reduce personnel and operational tempo, regain the initiative, and wear down the Taliban on their own schedule. If (and probably when) the Taliban attempted to reinstate sovereign control, and Al Qaeda re-established training camps, then American military and intelligence would have more definitive prey to track and destroy. Moreover, a critical ingredient of the success in Iraq was the overreaching by Islamic extremists and subsequent Sunni conversion to the American side -- the same dynamic could play out again under this scenario.
Furthermore, newly American-trained and equipped indigenous northern Afghan forces could over time attain the ability to re-assert control over the southern provinces, eventually closing out the requirement for an American presence. Alternatively, if the two halves of the country could not be put back together, the ethnic composition of the north may accommodate incorporation into neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While preserving Afghan sovereignty is preferable, a “soft partition” had been broached in regard to Iraq (by the current vice president no less).
Moreover, a potential “Talibanistan” may finally compel more substantive cooperation from unforthcoming major powers in the region. Iran has supported the Taliban’s resurgence but only to complicate US efforts; in reality, Shia Iran vehemently opposes Sunni Taliban’s return to power. India may come around as well because the Taliban’s restoration would bolster Pakistan. Both powers condemn proposed US outreach to “moderate Taliban” and would probably condone a Talibanistan’s emergence if only to set it up for eventual destruction.
Opponents to this approach could justifiably cite the hazard to Pakistan if southern Afghanistan was relinquished to the Taliban. The fragile pro-Western government in Islamabad would indeed be mortally threatened, but it is already imperiled and, as a sovereign nation, outside powers cannot intervene. If Pakistani extremists take over as a result, outside powers would have an indisputable pretext for military action – preventing the nation’s nuclear arsenal from falling into terrorist hands.
True, nations like Pakistan and Colombia have attempted to cede territory to sub-state threats in hopes of attaining peace only to backfire. However, Colombia eschewed military options and Pakistan does not have the requisite military capabilities. Astonishingly, the Pakistan military still considers India its primary security challenge even in light of advances by extremists inside the country recently.
When the previous administration finally undertook a new strategy in Iraq with the surge, the turn of events in Iraq did not salvage the party nominee’s chances in the fall election. As the incoming administration elected on a mandate for change, President Obama could deliver its pledge to end the unpopular war in Iraq and return the focus to the original fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. To distinguish the approach from its predecessor, President Obama asserted the new strategy was “stronger” because more troops would be added, “smarter” because the situation was cast a regional one, and “comprehensive” because capabilities beyond military ones would be employed. The Obama Administration and Department of Defense leadership assert “all elements of national power” will be brought to bear, but already the Pentagon is acknowledging the dearth of civilian reconstruction capacity will have to be made up by the military. Expanding the Army and Marine Corps has been alleviated the situation somewhat, but the key deficit is found in military “enablers” – engineering, reconstruction and military police units – which will still be needed for Iraq as well. For all these contrasts with the previous administration, the Obama strategy is perpetuating the much-maligned foreign policy approach of the neoconservatives – transforming a country by military means. Moreover, transforming a country that has resisted centralization and foreign domination for centuries and has endured more than thirty years of internecine warfare. The experience in Iraq has shown securing the population is critical to postwar stability and the efficacy of the American method has been demonstrated, but as the old Afghan proverb declares, “the war is over, now the real fighting begins”. The debate between crusaders and conservatives has been tremendously beneficial but needlessly dogmatic. As Colin Gray counsels, respecting the cultural dimension of war is critical but it is not the answer to military difficulties – the army commands warriors, not cultural anthropologists.
1 A search on Proquest shows no publications by John Nagl on the 2006 Lebanon War.
2 The characterization of the debate as "either-or" is borrowed from "On CT vs. COIN" by Andrew Exum, a Fellow with the Center for a New American Security and veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, who identified this challenge in a recent article posted on Small Wars Journal. Exum contends the either/or dichotomy between CT (counterterrorism) and COIN is a false one, primarily because the distinction between the two is misunderstood. Exum asserted the key difference is mentality. In CT, the approach is direct action and targeted strikes against the enemy to improve security; in contrast, the COIN approach entails indirect action and up-close interaction with the local population. In the article, Exum identified the advantages and disadvantages of each approach in regard to Afghanistan.